This is the debut disc of an all-female
group ‘Mille Fleurs’. They consist Jennie
Cassidy who, as well as having a versatile
and distinctive voice, also plays the
Sinfonye, a kind of hurdy-gurdy, Belinda
Sykes, singer, shawm player and percussionist
and Helen Garrison who has a light but
luscious mezzo. They are each experienced
and committed early music performers.
It is such an excellent idea to bring
them together, having cut their teeth,
as it were, with almost every other
group you can think of. This repertoire
is ideal for them, as I shall explain.
The Codex Las Huelgas is a voluminous
manuscript found at the
Las Huelgas convent near Burgos
in northern Spain. It was copied in
the first years of the 13th
Century. Many pieces are unique to it;
others can be traced throughout Europe.
I visited Las Huelgas in 1982. When
I arrived the clerk of the works asked
me if it reminded of an English church,
it certainly did, also of northern French
architecture in its austerity. He explained
that it was founded by Queen Eleanor,
sister of Richard the Lion Heart. I
was also struck by the iron grille which
separates the nave from the nun’s choir
with two rows of ancient choir stalls.
There is also a 13th Century
The international style of the early
Gothic is reflected in the pan-European
style of the music. As it was a Convent
you might be right in thinking that
this is music for women only but this
may well not be the case. The manuscript
in fact contains 45 monodic and 141
polyphonic compositions consisting of
all of the forms of the period: organa,
condicti, sequences and motets.
This recording was made in the insalubrious
surroundings of Kentish Town, yet it
captures the cavernous spaces of St.Silas’
church excellently. It really gives
an impression of being in the vast arena
that is Las Huelgas which is, after
all, practically the size of Westminster
Tessa Knighton to whom I would bow on
any matter concerning Spanish early
music queries, in her excellent accompanying
essay, "were these pieces performed
by the nuns themselves, or, as has been
tentatively suggested by the male chaplains
who led worship there, at least on major
feast occasions when polyphony was required?"
Two other recordings of this repertoire
are available. Each hedges its bets
by dividing the CD into some pieces
for male voices alone and some for females
only. Sequencia (on deutsche harmonia
Mundi 05472 77238 2) is totally a capella,
whereas Mille fleurs discreetly, and
sometimes not so discreetly, use instruments.
Also a capella is ‘Discantus’ directed
by Brigitte Lesne (Opus 111 30-68).
Theirs is the most beautiful of the
three recordings as far as voice quality
is concerned but perhaps it is a little
dull, being entirely for the nine female
Comparing repeated pieces on these CDs
is interesting, although I should say
at this stage that I am glad to have
all three discs as each is so markedly
different in approach. Miraculously
only a few pieces are doubled-up.
On Opus 111 the three-part conductus
‘Catolicorum cocio’ is performed of
course by women’s voices only. Sequencia
perform it with men only and Mille fleurs
have Jan Walters play it as a harp solo.
Each way is effective and successful
and I must add that any one of them
is quite in keeping. Jan Walters also
plays alone one other item; appropriately
a cantiga, (a monodic, strophic song).
She also accompanies in items like the
first piece, ‘Virgenes egregie’. But
it seems that instruments were not allowed
in the act of worship so how do we explain
the anomaly. We have to assume that
some of this music was for the liturgy
but other pieces were not. The music
may well have been played by lay-workers
attached as servants, for example, to
the convent, men or women. Music may
have accompanied meal-times. Instead
of text readings a religious song could
have been inserted and harp accompaniment
in those circumstances was desirable
to enable stable tuning. The disc also
includes a fascinating improvisation
on ‘Audi punctus, audi tellus’. We have
an opportunity to hear the original
monody on the immediately preceding
Jenny Cassidy has a nasal, folksy voice
which listeners with long memories will
associate with the days of Musica Reservata
and Janita Noorman. The disc starts
with Cassidy using this precise voice
on the first two tracks; oddly enough
it hardly rears its head again. I question
its use in sacred works like the three
part ‘Salve sancta parens’ but I find
it more acceptable in the cantigas like
‘Rosa das rosas’ accompanied magically
with a sort of broken chord background
on the harp.
I can’t say that I warm to the idea
of a two-part ‘Castitatis thalamum’
with one part played on the harp and
the other sung in unison by all three
singers; granted that the effect is,
in many ways, haunting.
Nevertheless since starting to review
this disc I have played it a great deal.
Highlights include the simple yet expressive
way a little two-part piece like ‘Benedicamus
benigno voto’ is done by Sykes and Garrison.
The final item on the CD, the quite
often recorded ‘Maria, virgo virginum’
(here accompanied by a drone) is quite
the most delightful performance of the
piece I have ever heard. And what a
beautiful A-men to end the CD.
Just a little note to Signum. Please
could the track number be put next to
the appropriate section in the booklet.
Why also is the text of ‘Confessorum
agonia’ missing when the rest are there
and so well presented. The recording
is good and the CD is adorned with attractive
photos of the convent cloisters.